Buffy Holt of Plain Simple English is in London and posted this exquisite photo from inside Westminster Cathedral at 3:00 p.m. on Good Friday. The image is peaceful and meditative but what I found most interesting is that the church is all but empty during the scheduled Celebration of the Lord’s Passion.
What made this so interesting to me was that I had been thinking a lot last week about our all-too-human instinct to take something transcendent and turn it into tradition, and the photo reminded me of something a friend of mine had said several years ago along the lines of how we start with a movement, turn it into a monument and before you know it it becomes a mausoleum. Such is the affect of the traditions of man on the things of God.
Though the picture was of Westminster Cathedral, I don’t single out any religion or doctrine for this fault because it is common to all men and women (though, biblically, you might be able to make a case that women are less susceptible). You could see it happening even before Jesus was crucified, such as the dinner in Bethany (Matthew 26:6-13) when the woman anointed him with expensive oil and was berated by some disciples who took Jesus’ teaching to care for the poor and fashioned it into an on-the-spot doctrine that missed what the Spirit was doing (though the woman didn’t). Later, at the last supper (John 13:1) Jesus went to wash the feet of his disciples and Peter at first refused because such behavior didn’t line up with his thinking of what was proper (though you’d think if the Lord wanted to do something a certain way these guys by now would have learned to let him). When Jesus tells Peter that he must allow it or have no part in Jesus’ plan Peter careened over to the other ditch, telling Jesus to not just wash his feet but his hands and head as well. Again Jesus had to pull Peter back from taking a simple idea and going off in his own direction with it.
Later, after Passover and the sabbath, Mary gathered embalming oils and spices and set off for the tomb to honor and preserve the body according to their tradition. Even though Jesus had told her and the disciples what was going to happen, she thought of him as dead. As much as she loved Jesus and grieved for him she forgot what he said and set out to do what she thought was right and necessary until the angel spoke to her and reminded her (Luke 24:5-8). To her credit, she quickly embraced the new reality and hurried to tell the disciples who, because they couldn’t wrap their minds around it, dismissed her words as idle tales (24:11).
The disciples at Bethany, Peter seated before the basin, and Mary with her spices were all trying to do what they thought was right and proper, and that is how most religious traditions begin. It is all too easy for us to become like the Pharisees, observing the law to the letter and missing the spirit of the law entirely. It does have a way of sneaking up on you, though. Even as individuals we quickly develop our own habits and customs in how we relate to God and try so hard to reason out the things we don’t understand that we, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, don’t recognize Jesus when he is sitting right in front of us (Luke 24:30). I can say this with complete boldness because I know it applies to my life. I’ve found that if there’s anything more draining to my faith than the traditions of man it is probably the traditions of me.
Tradition can be good, of course. The Passover, for example, was of God because it reminded the Israelites of his mercy and provision, and the spilling of the blood of a perfect lamb on the door mantle to save the first-born foreshadowed the blood of the perfect lamb and the sacrifice of God’s first-born to save us. Nor is this to say that everything old is suspect and we need to go running willy-nilly after every new thing; one path may lead to stagnation but the other can lead to outright heresy. The fault in both is losing sight of Christ and his word and being too quick to add our own refinements based on our own reasoning or even our experience (“well, it’s always worked fine when I’ve done it like this before”). This eventually leads to our faith being in our habits and not in the source of our being, hence the movement becomes a monument and the monument eventually becomes a mausoleum. And there ain’t nothing but dead people in there.